Under Our Noses: PFAS Contamination in Southern Colorado

June 10, 2019 | 11:33 am
Photo: FEMA
Ryan Nelson

I was born an only child in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1979. My father, who is a retired military officer, moved us from coast-to-coast and across the country until we finally returned home in 1989. By the time I was 20, I had traveled and seen parts of the Western world that continue to enrich my life. However, Colorado has always held me safe, secure, and nestled in the Rocky Mountains as I continued to mature into adulthood. The quiet solitude the outdoors here provided me just as much ecological insight as scuba diving in the Grand Caymans or walking along the coasts of Hawaii. Now I’ve seen the delicate balance of nature in Colorado disrupted by devastating wildfires and operations from fracking plus other continued operations of big oil and gas.  

There were a lot of wake-up calls to the United States in 2018. Following my own personal revelations, I emerged from my own cave of isolation as a single parent to learn just how bad things have gotten. Seeing the corruption of facts and scientific evidence in my own local community I started working to illuminate truth in others and grasped what an uphill battle it is.

In January 2019, my formal training as an activist began. As an advocate for Colorado’s environment, one of the first things that truly disturbed me to the core was the contamination of drinking water—which I thought I was well-informed upon regarding my involvements in attempting to ban fracking last year in Colorado. The data in front of me stated that immediately south of Colorado Springs the worst circumstance imaginable was already over and done with, the PFC levels detected in water supplies makes it unfit for human consumption.

Contamination of the Widefield aquifer

Fountain Creek flows through the heart of downtown Colorado Springs, past the Martin Drake Power Plant fueled by coal, south-southeast to the communities of Fountain, Widefield, Security, and others in Southern Colorado. At least 57,000 residents were drinking water from the Widefield Aquifer, which is a paleochannel of Fountain Creek, in a renewable annual supply of nearly four billion gallons. During 2013-2014, as part of regular EPA testing done under the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, the EPA’s Office of Science and Technology collected surface and groundwater samples from various areas of Fountain Creek and Sand Creek.

Solid phase extraction followed by high pressure liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry pinpointed the examination of ten separate PFAS compounds of differing lengths and makeups. The data was compiled using ArcGIS software to indicate concentrations along the paths on surface water. This initial study produced conclusions that showed contamination in every area that was sampled, the contamination exceeded the EPA’s advisory of 70 ppt being as high as 320 ppt, and that one of the local United States Air Force (USAF) bases was likely responsible for the contamination. It’s an Air Force base I know well.

Peterson Air Force Base, like other airstrips and airports and institutions throughout the world, has conducted firefighting training for its airmen using aqueous film forming foams since the 1970s. For decades the foam seeped into the Widefield Aquifer. In addition to that, base leaders admitted to disposing of foam-contaminated wastewater directly into the sewers in Colorado Springs three times a year. A report released by the Air Force clearly downplayed their responsibility for this contamination, but they did admit to it.

While the ultimate source of the Widefield Aquifer’s contamination may never be determined, just as the contamination might ever be fully removed, Air Force officials immediately began discussions with local congressional delegates, county commissioners, city staffers, and representatives of environmental agencies plus regional water districts. The Air Force committed to a five-year plan in providing alternative drinking water and funding installations for water treatment. Still, local and state officials have clearly indicated that even the proposed $4.3 million would not be enough to restore the damage done. To this day residents surrounding the Widefield Aquifer don’t trust that the water that comes from the taps in their homes is safe.

New watchdogs emerge

As of July 2017, the United States Air Force no longer uses AFFFs (aqueous film forming foams) as part of an internal mitigation plan. In April 2018 the USAF announced plans for delivering clean water to the impacted residents outlining the installation of filtration systems and purchasing 235 million gallons of drinkable water. Investigations continue in and around Peterson while local and state environmental scientists establish standards to limit contamination of the aquifer to 70 ppt. Water officials and advocates from the towns of Fountain, Security and Widefield continue their efforts in exposing and preventing further water contamination. Their sights are upriver directly at the Martin Drake Plant where its residual coal combines with surface runoff flowing downhill right into Fountain Creek. Also, in downtown Colorado Springs is Colorado College (CC), whose students and faculty are on the front lines of creating a sustainable future. CC’s chemistry students and faculty collaborators are working on an intensive curriculum of analyzing and eventually predicting contamination from surface water flow. All involved have established direct communication and contacts with different officials of the EPA.

The EPA gathered for a conference in Fountain, CO on February 14, 2019 for discourse on the contamination there and across the country. EPA regional administrator Doug Benevento and senior counsel to the administrator Peter Wright were present. One thing communities have been demanding is an enforceable standard, known as a maximum contaminant level, for drinking water. Benevento and Wright stated that the Safe Drinking Water Act requires the EPA to gather this data, but they must go through legal steps in this as well as recommendations for treatment. PFOAs and PFOSs are planned to be first for detection with steps in place by the end of the year and will begin regulating PFASs as dangerous chemicals. Furthermore, the eight examples of contamination, which were given direct orders from the EPA, will provide information and cleanup recommendations for maximum containment levels in drinking water plus establishing timelines for future purification efforts.

If our communities are going to have any semblance of normalcy in recovering from such disaster, then it is the communities who need to be directly involved. This sentiment is mirrored directly by Cornell Long of the Air Force’s Civil Engineer Center, “Thanks to our strong partnership with Fountain, Security and Widefield, these agreements will help us protect those communities as we move forward.” The more we know, the more we can prevent things like this from happening again, even if we can’t undo the damage that has already been done.